Today we find ourselves living in a world where more and more people are turning away from democracy and supporting governments which have authoritarian tendencies or promote outright autocracy. For historian, Anne Applebaum this movement has been somewhat personal as she opens her latest book, THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF AUTHORITARIANISM by describing a New Year’s Eve party she and her husband Radek Sikorski, who at the time was deputy foreign minister in a center-right Polish government threw to usher in the year 2000. Most of the participants were Polish friends, journalists, and civil servants. The majority of the guests were conservatives and anti-communists, and most were optimistic about the future. Fast forward twenty years, Applebaum is no longer friends with most of these individuals and she does her best to avoid them as many of her former guests seemed to have joined forces with demagogues and authoritarian leaning types. Applebaum, in a mixture of historical trends and her own biography tries to explain why as she investigates the struggle between democracy and dictatorship zeroing in on trends in Hungary and Poland, which for her and her family is a partial home. Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of a series of books dealing with the Soviet Union; RED FAMINE: STALIN’S WAR ON UKRAINE, IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1944-1956, and GULAG: A HISTORY provides important insights as to why liberal democracy seems to be under siege, and how authoritarianism is on the rise.
Since 1989 the evolution toward democracy from the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe seems to have stalled as rightist authoritarian leaning governments have come to power, particularly in Poland and Hungary. Once they assume control these governments manipulate the levers of power to consolidate their reign relying on lies, dismissal from government positions, conspiracy theories, and inculcating the masses with a xenophobic and victim oriented messages. According to the author there is no single explanation as to why this has occurred and she states upfront that she has no “grand theory or universal solution” to offer, but she is correct in stating that “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all our societies eventually will.” For Americans this seemed implausible until the events of the last four years and many believe that the election of 2020 points to Trumpism as an aberration, however the storming of the capitol on January 6, 2021, and recent votes in the US Congress seem to make this fear even more of a reality for the future.
Applebaum argues that the key to a construction of an autocracy is the demagogue and what attracts people to that type of individual. This movement is not limited to a particular position on a political continuum as it is present on the left and the right, but at present it appears it leans toward right wing extremists who have achieved power in western democracies. This “new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” They are diverse groups with a number of agendas, but all “seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.”
According to Applebaum resentment, revenge, and envy, not radical loneliness drives these individuals. A case in point is the Law and Justice party in Poland which has taken control and purged the Polish media resulting in an increase in political violence through the manipulation of reality. The government and its supporters have constructed a new world view that employs modern marketing techniques and social media campaigns using lies and an alternative reality which increases political polarization and inflames people’s sense of right and wrong as they absorb what Applebaum refers to as “medium sized lies” and conspiracy theories put out by political leadership. In Hungary, the lies center around the “superhuman” power of liberal billionaire George Soros who is blamed for importing thousands of Muslim migrants to Hungary to destroy the country. In Poland, the lies rest in part on the Smolensk conspiracy that refers to the death of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski and senior military leader in a 2010 plane crash. In both countries the younger generation no longer remembered Communism, so new reasons are created to distrust politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals who supported liberal ideas. This alternate reality explains away complex phenomena and provides its supporters with “privileged access to the truth,” and power for those who have constructed the new world view.
What is ironic according Applebaum is that the language of the European radical right – the demand for revolution against elites; the dreams of cleansing of violence and an apocalyptic cultural clash is eerily similar to the language once used by the European radical left. It can be seen in Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, and certainly is on the rise in the oldest and most secure democracies in the world.
(Poland’s President Andrzej Duda announces refusal to sign bill targetting members of the communist-era military council © Reuters)
In perhaps her best chapter “The Future of Nostalgia” Applebaum does a nice job summarizing how “restorative nostalgic conservatives fought for Brexit (in the United Kingdom). The desire for chao, the realization they underestimated the cost of the extraction from the European Union, and the numerous lies to gain public support are carefully laid out.” It is ironic how the Tories even allied with Poland’s Law and Justice party in the European Parliament as they argued against censuring Orban’s actions in Hungary. Applebaum’s deep dive into Brexit, along with her discussion of Boris Johnson who she was quite familiar with reflect movements that are similar to the United States and show how politicians in both countries seem to have either lost control of their supporters or have not thought out the implications of their actions.
Another major strength of Applebaum’s narrative and analysis is her command of American and European history. It is on full display in her discussion of historical events and movements in Poland, Hungary, and Russia and how they have set the foundation for autocracy in those countries. Her analysis of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 in France and its comparison to the fissures in the current American body politic is both thoughtful and accurate. The split in French society between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards seems to mirror what is currently occurring in the United States as friendships are ruined and society has been reorganizing itself over the last two decades. Applebaum describes another dinner party, as opposed to the earlier gathering in Poland, this time at at David Brock’s Georgetown home in 1993 whose guests included the likes of David Brooks, Robert Kimball, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Dinesh D’Souza, David Frum, among others. In 1993 these individuals seem to have an ideological community of fate, but over the next twenty years they have split, each going their own way and some refuse to even talk to each other.
This bifurcation is epitomized by Applebaum’s discussion of Laura Ingraham’s ideological evolution from a Reaganite to a Trumper over a similar period of time. The views she espouses on Fox News each evening contributed to the exacerbation of tensions in American society and led to the events of July 6, 2021 . Ingraham’s despair revolves around an America that is a “dark, nightmarish place where God speaks to only a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where democratically elected politicians are no better than foreign dictators and mass murderers; where the ‘elite’ is wallowing in decadence, disarray and death.” For Ingraham and her ilk America has rejected old values and universities teach people to hate their country. The result is that “any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that is what it takes to get the real America, the old America back.” Donald Trump has mastered this undercurrent and has become the epitome of the rhetoric of the restorative nostalgia by railing against the establishment and moral decline. If everyone is corrupt, we have a moral equivalence, so it is acceptable to support a corrupt president. The real reality is the “deep state bureaucrats who manipulate voters.
As Bill Keller writes in the July 19, 2020 edition of the New York Times, “Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power — economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration — while important, do not fully explain the clercs. After all, when Poland, where she begins her investigation, brought the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party to power in 2015, the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination, faced no terrorist threat. ‘Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,’ she writes.” Keller goes on to write that “a recurring problem in this book is that most of the clercs* refuse to talk to Applebaum, leaving her dependent on the public record and the wisdom of mutual acquaintances. But she makes the best of what she’s got. She is most sure-footed when appraising intellectuals who have lived in, and escaped, the Soviet orbit. From Poland, she moves on to Hungary, then to Britain and finally to Trump’s United States, with detours to Spain and Greece, in pursuit of the fallen intellectuals.
She identifies layers of disenchantment: nostalgia for the moral purpose of the Cold War, disappointment with meritocracy, the appeal of conspiracy theories (often involving George Soros, the Hungarian-American and, not incidentally, Jewish billionaire). She adds that part of the answer lies in the ‘cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,’ the mixed blessing of the internet, which has deprived us of a shared narrative and diminished the responsible media elite that used to filter out conspiracy theories and temper partisan passions. This is hardly an original complaint, but no less true for that.”
Pundits across the cable news world have relied upon Applebaum throughout the political changes evolving since the election of 2016 in the United States. Her commentary as well as her writing is clear, concise, and presents an element of her personal experience. A problem that emerges that may have thrown off any optimism she may have considered is that of COVID-19. Autocrats have used the pandemic for their own purposes be it Hungary, Poland, or the United States which makes the future extremely unclear, but the perspective Applebaum brings is food for thought and quite scary how people can be manipulated by the needs of autocrats and there is no clear ending as to which way the world body politic may evolve.
*all those who speak in the world in a transcendental manner.